Disrupting opportunity gaps will hinge on networks

By:

Dec 14, 2017

Last week, Stanford researcher Raj Chetty came out with yet another new study on the jagged landscape of opportunity facing America. Analyzing the relationship between young people’s exposure to innovation and the likelihood that they would go on to become inventors, the study highlights an alarming rate of what the authors dub “lost Einsteins”: young people who show promising potential but who, due to lack of exposure to innovation, appear far less likely to pursue careers as inventors. Perhaps unsurprisingly these gaps fall along demographic lines. Children from high-income (top 1%) families are ten times as likely to become inventors as those from below-median income families.

The consequences of Chetty’s specific findings are profound. Society is passing up entire reservoirs of latent innovation potential in the next generation.

The findings are also a microcosm of a broader reality facing the education establishment in an age of stark income and geographic inequalities. If Chetty’s research tells us something about schools, it’s that all the academic interventions in the world may not add up to tackling opportunity gaps that shape students’ ability to realize their potential as inventors or otherwise. In recent years, education reformers have focused relentlessly on K-12 achievement gaps and college graduation rates as proxies for leveling the playing field. But Chetty’s data suggests that opportunity gaps don’t merely spring forth from gaps in achievement or attainment—they are based on exposure. They are also social and geographic in nature.

The study underscores a fundamental truth about opportunity: it depends, at least in part, on our inherited networks. Inherited networks, Chetty’s findings suggest, are fundamentally bounded. They can propel some young people into certain careers, but keep others out. Luckily, however, new tools and approaches emerging across K-12 and higher education could begin to disrupt the boundaries of students’ inherited networks.

Tools to address opportunity gaps

For the past three years I’ve been tracking tools and models that expand students’ access to relationships that might otherwise be out of reach—because of where they live, their family’s networks, or the structures of the schools they attend. These emerging tools and practices offer a small but vibrant beacon lighting the path forward to address the social side of opportunity gaps.

Some include platforms, like CommunityShare or ImBlaze. These tools are aimed at allowing schools to better tap into local community-based opportunities and experts by cutting through the logistical hurdle of coordinating across the school-community interface. Using CommunityShare, teachers can log onto the site to find a community member who can speak to particular topics in their classes or offer a lesson. Schools can use ImBlaze—an effort spawned from Big Picture Learning’s longtime model connecting students to internships with local businesses—to recruit and organize internship opportunities for their students throughout their local community. In other words, these tools can help schools address exposure gaps by deliberately connecting students to more local, real-world professionals whom they otherwise might not know.

But much of Chetty’s research suggests that geography can shape the sorts of opportunities on students’ radar. (This map shows just how unevenly the ratio of patents to children is distributed across the country). What about those geographies where a diverse array of industry experts and mentors are harder to come by? In these cases the most promising innovations may be those that allow students to diversify their connections to experts online. For example, tools like Nepris or Educurious allow educators to port online mentors or experts into classrooms over video. Using these tools, educators can begin to supplement traditional lesson plans and projects with live chats with real people working in the fields that students are studying and industries they might eventually work in.

These tools could help K-12 schools begin to address exposure gaps. Still other innovative approaches—like Braven—aim to help higher education institutions address stubborn opportunity gaps that tend to persist even as older students get closer to entering the workforce. Braven partners with universities to provide an “Accelerator Course” to arm first-generation college students with skills, internship experiences, and networks. The program is delivered through local volunteer near-peer young professionals working in high profile firms the likes of Facebook, Prudential, and Audible. According to its latest impact report, compared with peers nationally, Braven college graduates are more likely to have at least one internship during college. Their cohorts also experienced statistically significant growth in the closeness of friendship networks and advice networks with volunteer professionals.

What schools and colleges can do to surface ‘lost Einsteins’

Opportunity is something young people are—or aren’t—networked into. Although the notion of “networking” can reek of a shallow exercise at cocktail parties or ad-hoc connections on LinkedIn, Chetty’s research suggests that exposure to certain professions has deep, long-lasting consequences. Education institutions can address this reality by exploring emerging tools and approaches designed to reach beyond students’ inherited networks and, in some cases, immediate geography. If we don’t, countless ‘lost Einsteins’ will be deprived of—and deprive us of—a brighter future.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her new book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks" https://amzn.to/2RIqwOk.